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Shyness In Children

14/08/2014 16:59 | Updated 20 May 2015

Shyness in children

My mum told me years ago that when I was a child I was so shy that she was worried for me. She was extremely shy too and she used to hope and pray I wouldn't turn out like her. In my late teens, I got a job in a shop and had to get over my shyness (to talk to customers). Now 20 plus years later, I don't consider myself shy at all, but my eight-year-old son seems to be continuing the family tradition.

He's extremely chatty at home, but often very shy with strangers, to the point where he sometimes doesn't respond at all when someone speaks to him, won't even look at them.

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I find myself getting embarrassed and either make excuses or get annoyed with him for his perceived rudeness... but it's not rudeness, it's shyness. What I don't know is how to deal with it.

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First of all, though, does it need to be 'dealt with' at all? It's a personality trait, isn't it? Not a character flaw. My friend Clodagh Murphy was painfully shy at school and says she hated being 'dealt with' all the time.

"Teachers always trying to 'bring you out of your shell'. The last thing you want when you're shy is someone drawing attention to you, especially in front of a whole class of people. It's horrible because they're basically saying they don't like the way you are."

Jilly Whitfield, mum to two boys, disagrees. She says: "The only way to break down the wall of shyness is to go at it with a sledge hammer, I think. The more you face it the more confident you become, the more you don't face it the more it is depleted.

"Rowan can be shy, but I force him to do things out of his comfort zone, such as get served in a shop or ask a question in the library. He's run back in tears in the past but over time I see his confidence build."

I don't want to push Harry to do anything he doesn't want to do, but when someone speaks to him and he ignores them or stares into space (or at me) rather than answer them, I can't just ignore it, can I?

I want him to speak nicely to people who speak to him, partly because I want him to have good manners, but also because I worry the person he's ignoring will judge me. So I try to chivvy him into replying or make a joke. At the very least I'll say "He's shy..."

Liat Hughes Joshi, author of Raising Children, isn't keen on labelling a child 'shy' or on forcing a child to do something they're not comfortable with without explanation. Instead, she suggests asking what they're afraid of when someone speaks to them.

"This needs to be done out of the heat of the moment - when they and you have calmed down if there's been a specific incident that everyone's got upset about. Have a chat when the rest of the family isn't around - it might even be nice to go to a cafe or for a walk just the two of you.

"Once you know what they're worried about - provided they can articulate it and sometimes they won't be able to of course - you can attempt to work with them and try to find a solution that reassures them.

"Our children need to be able to trust us to build confidence - forcing them to do something before they're ready which, if it goes wrong, breaks that trust, won't often help."

Mum of two, Siobain Waters, says: "I feel sad that shyness is generally seen as an affliction rather than another facet of our characters. But I appreciate that chronic shyness can be suffocating for some, and that even moderate shyness can prevent us from getting the most out of certain situations. Then again plenty of other issues also impact on our sociability, motivation and drive.

"I think we need to ensure that children realise that they are not unusual in experiencing shyness and that there is nothing wrong with feeling as they do - yes, they may feel uncomfortable but it will pass."

Liat Hughes Joshi agrees:

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As a parent I think it's about balance - one has to accept it if your child is a little shy by nature and not go trying to fit a square peg into a round hole but equally, it doesn't mean we shouldn't gently try to help them become more confident.

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For me, I think the way forward is to talk to Harry about what's worrying him, to worry less myself about what other people are thinking of us both and to let him come out of his shell in his own time. Or, if he decides to stay in his shell, be okay with that too.

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